In a run-up to remarkable elections, where the choice across the political spectrum seems so vast, there is agreement only on one idea. It is packaged in many ways, and depending on who articulates it – Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal – it is sold as participative democracy, devolving power to the people or decentralization of decision making. We believe in giving power to the people thundered Modi, without bothering to explain that in Gujarat, as the people’s choice, he has ensured all power resides with him. Rahul Gandhi, in perhaps one of the more embarrassing moments of his speech in Delhi, singled out Mani Shankar Aiyar for his work on Panchayati Raj on the very day Aiyar seemed to suggest that a one-time tea-vendor really should not be aspiring to power in our democracy. Arvind Kejriwal, again willing to back his words by action, really did demonstrate through Somnath Bharti how his Mohalla Sabhas will work in practice. AFP AFP Hypocrisy is to be expected of our political leaders, even those from the AAP, who have been making much of their virtuous conduct. But clearly none of them have thought through the implications of their ideas. This is a state of things that has been with us ever since the Panchayati Raj institutions were formally made part of our Constitutional arrangement thanks to the 73rd amendment passed in 1992. The amendment was passed as one of the fallouts of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, but its basis went back to one of the Directive Principles of State Policy, which among other things also call for the enforcement of prohibition. Clearly, Ambedkar, one of the intellectual father’s of the Constitution (in fact the Constitution bears his stamp even more than, perhaps, Nehru) was clear on what he thought of such ideas. The village, he said was the very ‘negation of republic’ and he also held that “these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am, therefore, surprised that those who condemn provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.” The gangrape in Subalpur or for that matter the views of the majority of the residents of Khirki Extension would not have surprised Ambedkar. The kind of division of power that our Constitution originally envisaged was between the Centre and the State, from the very mode of selection of the Rajya Sabha (as Indian politics gets more fractured this body will become more and more crucial) to the Central, Concurrent and State lists, this was a carefully thought division of power in a representative democracy. At each level the clear distinction between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary was maintained, and implicit in this was the knowledge that the size of these units of democracy ensured that there would be other institutions such as the media which would act as a check in their own way. The necessity of such checks was obvious to anyone who had done any reading on the history of democracy. Wrestling with the same questions when the US Constituion was being conceived James Madisan wrote in the Federalist Papers that “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny … it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” This is exactly the sin that the framework panchayati raj has committed, and the AAP’s mohalla sabhas will embody. After stints in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh as a reporter it became clear to me that the impartial and efficient functioning of panchayats was a myth, predicated on a illusory body called the gram sabha which in the vast majority of panchayats had never met. I also found that the greater a person’s distance from an actual panchayat, the greater his or her faith in the myth, which went a long way towards explaining Rahul Gandhi and Mani Shankar Aiyar. Even the NGOs which spoke with such fervor about the benefits of panchayati raj forgot that in the few cases where it worked was due to the intervention of non-state actors like them which provided the checks that were otherwise missing. Earlier this year even the Aiyar was rather belatedly forced to concede this truth. The expert committee of the ministry of panchayati raj headed by him found that Panchayati Raj has largely become “Sarpanch Raj”. The committee concluded that rather than empowering the grassroots institutions and ensuring devolution of powers, the present system has left grassroots representatives largely disillusioned. Of course, this has been blamed on the failure of our system to give proper attention to panchayati raj and devolve power properly, whether administrative or financial. But this ignores the reality that in our hierarchical society country where in a large measure we have failed to create the idea of a citizen, the devolution of all powers to a small number of people is dangerous and will not work. The problems are inherent in the idea despite all the good intentions of a largely ignorant polity, whether it be Modi, Kejriwal or Rahul.